Chapter 15

To boldly go

"Base camp gone! Come back, come back. Base camp gone."

Ian and I peered at his radio handset with puzzlement. Out of the small black box came the plaintive voice of Padam Maygar, the lonely guardian of our Everest east face base camp, which was several miles away from us, on the banks of the Kangshung glacier. 

"Padam. Do you read me?" asked Ian, time and again. 

There was no acknowledgement, just Padam's voice repeating his message of despair over and over into the ether. Apparently he was not receiving our signal. It wasn't at all obvious where base camp could have gone to. It had seemed well established when we left it a few days before and highly unlikely to go walkabout, but it was clear that the only way to find out would be to go back there and have a look. Unfortunately ‘back there’ was a long way away.

We were camped at our advanced base camp, two tiny tents pitched on a pile of moraine, carefully chosen to protect us from the avalanches that swept down from the north-east face of Lhotse and the east face of Everest. It was 18.00, our normal time for the daily radio call, and the vast rock-strewn glacier that separated us from Padam and the strangely missing base camp was shrouded in mist and slowly disappearing in the gathering dusk. 

The vanished base camp was the mystery of the moment, but a bigger mystery was what we were doing there at all, given how adamant I had been after the 1999 summit that there would be No More Everest. We had in fact been hoping to go in another direction entirely. We’d been planning an Arctic expedition and it wasn’t so much that we’d zigged when we should have zagged, as that we’d been brutally reminded of that old adage: a sponsorship only counts once the money is in the bank. 

We’d had the support of a major hotel chain for the Arctic venture, but at the last minute they’d been subject to a hostile takeover bid, our contact lost his position and the marketing budget was brutally slashed. We found ourselves with the training mostly done, time taken off and a little money available from other sponsors. What could we put together at short notice for a northern spring season? 

It was then that Ian, whom I had married two years earlier, mentioned ever so casually that he had an idea for a new route on the east face of Everest. 2003 was the 50th anniversary of the first ascent and wouldn’t it be a good time to visit the mountain just once more? 

Everest is in fact a three-sided pyramid, with three great faces – the south-west, the north and the east, which is better known as the Kangshung face. The summit days of both my other Everest ascents had involved tiptoeing along the snowy ridges that bounded the top of this face, peering with nervous awe down the 3,000 metre drop to the Kangshung glacier far below. 

The face, which consists of an impressive series of rock buttresses supporting a plinth of giant seracs with a vast snow slope balanced above them, was first seen by westerners some ninety years earlier. The 1921 British Reconnaissance Expedition had permission to attempt an ascent of Everest, the first time the Dalai Lama, the de facto ruler of Tibet, had allowed such a thing. George Mallory and Guy Bullock were the first to view the face and Mallory was not enchanted by what he saw. 

He wrote in his expedition diary:

We had already taken time to observe the great Eastern Face of Mount Everest, and more particularly the lower edge of the hanging glacier; it required but little further gazing to know that almost everywhere the rocks below must be exposed to ice falling from this glacier; that if, elsewhere, it might be possible to climb up, the performance would be too arduous, would take too much time and would lead to no convenient platform; that, in short, other men, less wise, might attempt this way if they would, but emphatically, it was not for us.

Sixty years passed before a team was rash enough to try the face, an expedition that included Edmund Hillary, but they aborted at 7,000 metres. Other members from that team returned in 1983 as an American expedition to make the first successful climb, via the central buttress. It was a heavy-duty affair combining the old siege style with the latest in American technology, and involved rocket launchers and a motorised winch to haul loads. 

The next successful ascent was a reaction to this, a four-man Anglo-American expedition climbing without oxygen or Sherpa support. They ascended the left-hand edge of the face to the south col. Stephen Venables made the final push up the south-east ridge to the summit on his own, the first Britain to climb Everest without oxygen. The price paid for their success was high, three of the four climbers lost toes to frostbite and Ed Webster lost eight fingertips. It was a breathtakingly audacious endeavour, of which Stephen Venables later wrote, “everyone is entitled do something completely mad once, the trick is getting away with it.” When I heard him lecture about that expedition while I was an undergraduate at Wits University, it never crossed my mind I might one day stand at the foot of that face myself. 

Stephen and his team had climbed the farthest left edge of the Kangshung face. The farthest right edge was the infamous ‘unclimbed ridge’, which claimed the lives of Pete Boardman and Joe Tasker in 1982. When I read Where the Mountain Casts Its Shadow, the book written by Joe’s girlfriend Maria Coffey about the terrible price paid by those left behind, once again I was not inspired. 

The pinnacles are the notorious crux section on this ridge, three rock formations situated between 7,800 and 8,200 metres that involve complex technical climbing. Russell Brice, who like us had been on the north side of the mountain in 1998 and 1999, was the first to climb through them with his climbing partner Harry Taylor. They were left so exhausted by their achievement that they chose to escape down the north ridge. 

The route would finally fall in 1995 to a team from a Japanese university, supported by some 35 Sherpas who festooned most of the very long route with fixed ropes before the Japanese went to the summit. There things were left to rest, with a route on each outer edge and one line on the wall itself, despite the fact that the face is over three kilometres wide. 

I had never given the Kangshung face a second thought until Ian brought it up, but a bit of research told me that it was generally considered that two obvious lines remained, a direttissimo straight up the middle and the convoluted Fantasy ridge off to the right. We were going to have a look at the direttissimo. I wasn’t particularly taken with the idea, but giving up on the expedition season and simply staying at home seemed even less attractive, so somewhat to my bewilderment, I found I was off to Everest once again.

We knew that we didn’t have the resources to be much more than an exploratory expedition, so we presented a tiered set of objectives to our sponsors and media partners. The grand prize was of course the summit via the direttissimo route, probably with a descent down the north ridge, but it was highly unlikely that we’d manage it. An alternative and slightly less outrageous objective was the first ascent of the Fantasy ridge, which meant climbing up to 7,800 metres, where it met the Japanese route along the north-east ridge. The only thing we could genuinely promise was an interesting story, whether of success or of the reasons for failure, transmitted via electronic photographs, web posts and audio reports. I would be posting reports to three media websites, in the UK, Ireland and Germany, and to two business intranet sites.

As expedition participants, we wanted everything to progress gloriously smoothly, but for the media and the public, problems were always going to make for more interesting copy. Happily for them, if not for us, the expedition would prove to be problematic right from the start. 

We were a team of four. The Sherpas we had climbed with on the previous expeditions were not available at such short notice, having all gone on to become major players in the commercial Everest climbing community, but they recommended a distant cousin called Ang Geljen Sherpa. He was a slim young man with a shock of dark hair, keen to make a name for himself and break into the increasingly lucrative world of guided expeditions on Everest. Padam Magar came along once more, to run his fourth Everest base camp for us. 

We left Kathmandu on Sunday 6 April 2003, to begin the long drive to the great pass that connects Nepal to China. We were joined at the Tibetan border by our liaison officer, Dawa, who didn’t seem very happy with the assignment. Being a liaison officer at the crowded north face base camp meant two months of little work, plentiful socialising and comfortable living. Being sent alone to the remote east face was not an enviable posting. 

In contrast, we were glad to escape the modern world and its increasingly hysterical war rhetoric. The invasion of Iraq had just begun and the western media was clogged with talk of weapons of mass destruction and 45 minute deployment. The remote Tibetan plateau seemed like a good place to be while it all unfolded. However, even there we couldn’t escape. Every roadside tea lodge in Tibet had a television mounted in the corner and on every screen was the face of George W. Bush, his Texas drawl overlaid by a Chinese commentary.

After three days of rattling along dirt tracks, it was a relief to arrive at the village of Kharta, where the expedition equipment was loaded onto the backs of yaks. Dawa, who had no intention of living anywhere as boring as Everest east face base camp, settled in for a six week wait and we began the walk towards the mountain. 

The first problem came with the news that both routes into the Kangshung valley were probably blocked by snow. After two days of trekking, we were at the foot of the Langma La, a 5,000 metre high pass. We were keen to push on, but the reluctant yak herders were worried about the depth of snow and eager to return home, leaving us at a stalemate. Although yaks are creatures bred for the Tibetan plateau and high altitudes, they do not cope well with snowdrifts and rock fields. Their slender hooves punch through the snow crust and they can easily break a leg between hidden boulders. 

After much persuasion, it was agreed that the humans would have to create a path for the animals. Everyone began to break trail through the snow towards the pass, using our big booted feet to pack down a trench that the yaks could pick their way along. It took two days to cross the pass, as despite our efforts, the lead yaks sometimes sunk in up to their bellies, and each leg then had to be dug out individually. After the initial hesitation, the yak herders worked like Trojans, often carrying the expedition loads themselves, rather than tax their precious animals.

The crossing of the Langma La brought our first sight of the east side of Mount Everest, part of a magnificent mountain panorama encompassing Everest, Lhotse, Makalu and Jomolonzo, all of them close to or over 8,000 metres high. Whereas dozens of teams and hundreds of climbers were crowding into the south and north base camps in celebration of the 50th anniversary year, our tiny team of four would have the entire Kangshung valley to ourselves.

Two more days of walking brought us to a site suitable for our base camp, pitched in the last grassy field on the edge of the Kangshung glacier. There the yak herders left us, booked to return six weeks later. During that entire time we would not see another living soul.

The situation of base camp was glorious, with the east face of Everest, and the north-east face of Lhotse forming a semi-circular wall of snow and ice rising up for nearly two vertical miles. A long line of peaks marched away to the left, with Makalu and Jomolonzo dominating the skyline. The Kangshung glacier ran along the northern side of base camp, while the moraine slopes of Khartse rose up on the south.

A large dome tent, grandiloquently named the Aztec Palacio, became the centre of our world. There we cooked, ate, stored equipment, ran our communications and passed away the idle hours with endless games of cards. Five smaller tents were set up around it as sleeping quarters, further equipment storage and the toilet. Water was obtained from an ice lake down on the glacier.

A smaller tent within the Palacio protected the crucially important technical equipment – an Iridium Motorola satellite phone and a Sony laptop which provided email and telephone communications with the greater world. Power for the comms came from a portable petrol generator. It was a good plan in theory, but in reality the Iridium phone proved frustrating to use, with the high mountain walls limiting the available satellite coverage. Every few minutes of connectivity would be followed by a two-minute dead spell. This proved particularly challenging for the live chats with TalkSport Radio in London. Finally the crossings were recorded in advance, so as to edit out the gaps caused by the many cut-off calls.

The first few days were spent setting up tents, sorting through equipment, trying to get the comms to work and acclimatising to the altitude – base camp being at a height of 5,300 metres. As usual, moving towards the mountain slopes could only commence once the puja had been done. A small altar was built and a fire of juniper branches lit in front of it. Prayer flags were strung across the altar to the various tents, and offerings of sweets and beer were laid out. Sadly it didn’t bring Ian any luck. The expedition was hampered from the start by his poor health – first with a raging tooth abscess and then with a severe chest infection. 

His teeth had given us trouble before. In 2000 we had tried Mera Peak in Nepal, an acclimatisation climb before going on to attempt Lhotse, the fourth highest mountain in the world. By the time we backed off, Ian had a tooth abscess of such epic awfulness that he returned to South Africa for treatment, rather than risk a back-street dentist in Kathmandu. I went on to Lhotse with Pemba Sherpa and eventually teamed up with Scottish climber Sandy Allan who, like me, was listed on the climbing permit of Henry Todd. Sandy and I would climb the west summit of Lhotse, while Sandy’s friend, Rick Allen, reached the summit of Everest. Twelve years later I would attempt the first ascent of the Mazeno ridge of Nanga Parbat with Sandy and Rick, but at this point I had no inkling of that. 

Luckily, this time the drugs we had with us seemed to tame Ian’s tooth and we could start to search for a site for an advanced base camp (ABC). Following a recce to the foot of the American Buttress by Ang Geljen and myself, and a day sorting ABC loads, we began the grinding process of lugging equipment across the glacier to a dump near the foot of the route. 

The glacier provided a magnificent landscape of giant boulder fields, vast walls hung with organ pipes of ice, and, as temperatures rose, ever larger frozen lakes. What it didn't provide was any easy way through. This side of Everest was so seldom visited that there was no path across the slowly shifting ice. We finally found a reasonably straightforward route across and trudged along it many times in the next few weeks, our expedition being too poor to afford porters for this final four-kilometre-long section where yaks could not go.

Once enough kit had been dumped for a first attempt on the climb, we took a few days to do acclimatising ascents of neighbouring peaks, culminating with an attempt on the 6,500 metre high Khartse. However, bad weather set in and we finally turned back at 6,300 metres, in the face of high winds and steadily increasing snowfall. This was the beginning of what would become an ever more frustrating pattern of poor weather, featuring strong winds and regular snow.

It was viewing the Kangshung face from the summit of Khartse that led George Mallory to dismiss it as a climbing line.  We used the acclimatising ascents as recces to consider the face from different angles and to watch the avalanche patterns. What we saw increased our understanding of Mallory’s point of view. Hanging seracs threatened far more of the face than we had anticipated after we had poured over what few maps and photographs we could find. These giant overhanging cliffs of ice menaced our intended route from both sides. When gravity ruthlessly tore another chunk of ice loose from the underside of a serac, it would trigger an avalanche as it hit the snowy slopes below. Unlike other kinds of avalanche, where you can make tentative predictions about safety based on weather, snow conditions and time of day, serac avalanches are utterly random. On one day we watched with horror as a giant avalanche swept across the entire bottom third of the buttress. Had we been on the face, no-one would have survived.  It was clear that a change of objective was needed.

After three days trapped at base camp by poor weather, we finally set up ABC on 1 May, and moved in the next day. Despite the apparent progress, the problems were multiplying. Ian’s chest infection was still lingering, and he was moving slowly. My back was beginning to ache unceasingly from the heavy load carrying. Ang Geljen was immensely strong and cheerful, but simply could not manage everything alone.

ABC was pitched on a moraine pile that seemed safe from the avalanches that swept down from the north-east face of Lhotse, from the giant serac of the Anglo-American route, and from both sides of the American Buttress. Now that we had a base right at the foot of the mountain, we looked around for a safer line to climb. It became clear that the only real choice was the Fantasy ridge. 

At least the Fantasy ridge had been tried before, so we knew a little more about the terrain. Unfortunately, we also knew why it remained unclimbed. It is an immensely long, convoluted line leading up to a junction with the north-east ridge just below the pinnacles and it is capped by double-sided cornices – vast frozen waves of snow. It was not the sort of route that suited a team as small as our own, but at least it was out of the avalanche zone.

A ramp of snow appeared to offer a way up onto the ridge and Ang Geljen and I pushed up this, with Ian carrying equipment behind us in support. However, we found conditions to be very poor. The snow was knee deep or more and soft like sugar, so that the trail would not pack down, nor would snow stakes hold. Beneath the sugar snow was hard ice. Above the ramp was a line of threatening seracs. 

Demoralised and tired, we returned to ABC and endured a particularly windy night. The following morning it was snowing again and it was an easy choice to declare a rest day. On the evening of that day we got the strange radio call from a distraught Padam Maygar to announce “base camp gone!”

Ian and I peered out of our tent door into the gathering gloom. The four kilometre glacier hike was now shrouded in grey mist and we wondered what to do. With my awkward nagging backache brought on by carrying loads too heavy for me, I had grown to hate the crossing. The last time I had been slogging along, head down, mind miles away, when I tripped on a loose boulder, slipped sideways, wobbled backwards and ended up lying head down on a boulder slope, trapped beneath the weight of my pack, with my hiking boot jammed between two rocks. 

Even once I awkwardly struggled free of the rucksack, puffing like an asthmatic from the sudden adrenaline surge and the lack of oxygen at over 5,000 metres, I still could not pull my foot free, nor could I get into a position where I had the leverage to release either of the rocks that held me captive. Fortunately I was not the last of the three of us on the glacier and Ian was able to pull me out. Suffice it to say I did not want to re-cross the glacier in the dark and the mist. Ian had no wish to do so either, and as Padam’s call did not seem to indicate he was injured, we resolved to leave at first light. 

After the usual dreary dinner of hot water added to dehydrated cardboard which had pretensions of being roast chicken, we snuggled down into our big sleeping bags, each curled round a bottle filled with boiled water, which provided the only source of heat apart from our own bodies, and tried to sink into sleep. Strange noises filled the darkness. The glacier below us was constantly shifting and the echo of its creaks and groans, and of the frequent rock slides set off by its movement, provided an unceasing soundtrack.  But it wasn't only the glacier that was on the move. About two hours after the mysterious radio call, we heard the distant crack that generally indicated an avalanche. It didn't even merit a passing comment. We had become depressingly used to tiptoeing around the edges of a vast avalanche incubator. 

Suddenly the fabric of the tent wall, normally held taut by the curved tent poles, pressed down onto my face like a chilly blanket. The entire tent had simply folded sideways as if someone had rolled a giant barrel of wine over it. The fabric lifted for a moment, long enough for Ian to twist round and pull me under his arm, before snapping back down as the next barrel of heavy air rolled across us, a literal weight pushing us down on our sleeping mats.

The air was abruptly full of spindrift, minuscule flakes of snow that clogged our nostrils and irritated our eyes as we blinked into the blackness. We didn't need to discuss it to know what was happening. We were being pummelled by the shockwave that runs in front of a major avalanche. In pitch darkness, tangled up in mummy-shaped sleeping bags, dressed only in our thermal underwear and socks, there was no hope of running. We could only wait to discover whether giant blocks of snow and ice would come crushing down onto our little tent.

Although it felt like an age until silence settled around us once more, it probably was no more than a minute. The tents still stood, the spindrift settled, the danger had passed and there was nothing to be done about any of it, except lie in the darkness, jittery with adrenaline, pulses racing with nerves, and wait for sleep or for morning, whichever came first. Through the rest of the night the spindrift slowly melted, defeated by the heat of our bodies, and tiny icy trickles ran down into our sleeping bags, the only sign of how close we'd come to being obliterated. 

After an unsurprisingly bad night we were up before dawn, sparing only a brief jaundiced glance for the snow-dusting that covered the local landscape, before setting out to cross the endless glacier in search of our mysteriously missing base camp. It felt good to have a reason to get away from ABC and from the unstable wall of the Kangshung face. 

When we finally crested the last rise of moraine before the grassy meadow where our base camp had been pitched, we found that it wasn't so much that it was missing, as pulverised. Three of the six tents had been completely destroyed, and a fourth – our big mess tent – had been ripped open, with poles bent or broken, and now lay in a shabby tangle, as useful as a popped balloon. Equipment was strewn across the meadow, ribbons of chaos stretching out towards the glacier. Weeks later we would still be finding the odd razor or lone sock behind distant boulders. 

Two nights previously, when we, in our sheltered campsite protected by the bulk of Everest, had thought it was a trifle windier than usual, there had in fact been a huge windstorm running right along the north side of the Himalaya. We found out much later that these same winds had destroyed over 60 tents on Everest, Cho Oyu and Shishapangma.

It had been a profoundly frightening experience for Padam, the sole guardian of base camp, who had been sleeping in one of the tents that was destroyed. He had gone rolling across the field inside his tent in the middle of the night, his belongings a mad tumbling jumble around him, and then he’d had to try and sort out the chaos alone in the darkness. No wonder he had sounded stressed when he finally got through to us on the radio. 

The first priority was to attempt to repair the big mess tent, which was done with a combination of rope and bright yellow duct tape, duct tape being a multi-purpose tool that no self-respecting expedition should ever be without. Equipment was packed around the sides to hold it down, and a crawl hole established for the entrance. Although it was never the same again, it was rendered usable for the remainder of the trip, and there is no doubt that without it base camp would have been a much less pleasant place. 

Thereafter the job was to find, sort and check equipment. Once the confusion was brought under control it became clear that very little had been lost or damaged. The biggest problem was the communications equipment, which had all gone crashing to the ground. This was right at the beginning of the new era of socially networked expeditions and we were about to discover one of the great pitfalls of that phenomenon.

We were fine, the equipment that mattered was fine, the mountain was fine, the simple thing to do was turn our attention back to the climb and get on with it. However, we had created a technological monster, a set of people on another continent who expected news of us every few days. A sudden unexplained silence stretching indefinitely into the future was unlikely to be well received. Questions would be asked. Someone might feel that action should be taken. And if ‘action’ was taken to mean a search party, even a rescue party, being sent out to look for us, the best outcome would be inconvenience and embarrassment all round and the worst would be a very large bill handed to us to pay. All for something we had no need of. How could we get a message out? Kharta was a five-day walk away and not exactly stocked with internet cafes. The nearest satellite systems were in the possession of the teams attempting the north ridge of Everest. 

As the Himalayan chuff might fly, it was only eight kilometres from us to their advanced base camps on the east Rongbuk glacier. And the route was possible. George Mallory and company had famously crossed over that way in 1921 as they worked their way round the foot of the mountain. We simply needed to nip up and over the Karbo La at 6,000 metres, drop down onto the Karda glacier, head up to the Lhagba La at 6,850 metres and then clamber back down onto the east Rongbuk glacier, a distance of some twenty kilometres featuring some exceedingly inhospitable terrain. And then, having typed out a quick email message, come all the way back home again.

Considered from that angle, it provided plenty of motivation to use all of the little technical skill I had to get our comms kit working again. Fortunately both the laptop and the satellite phone blinked back to life, and I filed a report for the Daily Telegraph website in Britain, describing the avalanche and the destruction of base camp. Although they had expressed interest in the project before we left, since then they had more or less ignored us. Now their news editor promptly replied to say that that was great stuff and could they please have more of the same. 

Even though the laptop initially responded, it went into terminal decline a few days later, meaning an end to all email and digital pictures. Our technical base camp in St. Albans, UK, came to the rescue, recording voice reports via the satellite phone and transcribing those for the websites. However, as each problem was solved, another rolled up to take its place.

Padam had held it together while we recreated the base camp but now he went down with a bad chest infection, undoubtedly exacerbated by the stress of the wind storm. For a tense twelve hours it looked as if he might have to be evacuated while he could still stand on two feet. With Kharta a minimum of five days walk away, on the other side of a 5,000 metre pass, evacuation was never going to be an easy option. Fortunately the drugs began to take effect, and Padam slowly recovered.

While all this was going on, bad weather continued to deposit fresh snow on the route. We were all discouraged by the poor conditions and by our string of bad luck. Still, we felt the attempt must continue. Ian and Ang Geljen headed back to the route, while I remained at base camp to try and rest my now perpetually painful back. 

Everything came to a dramatic climax on 11 May. The many narrow crevasses that crossed the route had widened dramatically with the rising temperatures. While most were visible, some smaller ones were covered with the fresh snow. Ian and Ang Geljen were battling upwards through the soft snow, when Ang Geljen suddenly vanished, having fallen through the snow cover into a narrow crevasse. He managed to catch himself with his arms in crucifix position on either side of the crevasse walls. He hauled himself out, severely shaken, and he and Ian peered down into the inky blackness of the bottomless slot.

Ang Geljen, having quickly recovered his equanimity, then moved on in front, disappearing over a small rise. Ian, who had been climbing strongly and believed himself finally fully recovered from his chest infection, suddenly felt his arms seize up and his chest cave in. As he felt himself passing out he managed to call for Ang Geljen, who luckily heard him and came running back.

When Ian came round he found Ang Geljen pumping his chest and massaging his diaphragm to keep his breathing going. With Ian barely strong enough to stand, Ang Geljen slowly helped him stumble down the route to the glacier. With the drop in altitude, Ian gradually recovered and was finally able to make his way back to base camp by that evening. He slept on oxygen that night, and although there was no further sign of trauma, he was to remain short of breath and easily tired for weeks afterwards. (In the long run, there was no sign of any permanent damage.)

At this point we all felt that the expedition had used up eight of its nine lives, and it was time to call it quits while we were all still in one piece. It was clear that, even with all three climbers at full strength, we did not have the capability to tackle the treacherous challenges of the Fantasy ridge.

In the end the first priority is not to reach the summit but rather to come home alive, to live to tell the tale and climb again another day. The east face of Everest had proved too big for us. Doubtless both routes will be climbed one day, either by a big team with a lot of resources, or by a small group of climbers who are young, very fit, and slightly crazy. 

As if in support of our decision, five days of wind and fresh snowfall followed before we were able to return to the route to bring back the last of our equipment. The now gaping crevasses on the route left even the perpetually motivated Ang Geljen looking shaken. Several heavy, endless, demoralising carries followed to bring the equipment from ABC back across the glacier to base camp.

And then a long wait ensued. With the Everest east base camp so remote, there was no way to organise early departure by yak and vehicle. One of the strange realities of modern satellite communications was that we could happily chat to media in London but had no way to get a message out to Kharta short of somebody packing up a tent, food and gas, and hiking out over the passes. Nor would the yak herders themselves be in Kharta, a further message would have to be sent out on foot to find them. It was easier to simply wait for them to arrive as planned. 

Long days passed lounging in the tents or sprawled out on the grass in the sunshine. Ian filled the hours playing on his portable computer chessboard and I finally got my head around the basics of Spanish grammar, working through a book of explanations and exercises I had brought with me. Many cups of tea were drunk and many games of cards played, with a fortune in matchsticks being lost and won. 

We watched as spring blew up the Kangshung valley on a warm breeze from India. The Arun river (called the Bum-chu in Tibet) originates near Nylam on the Tibetan plateau, but having flowed past Kharta, it then turns southwards and – in a breath-taking reminder of how young the Himalaya are as a mountain chain – cuts right through between Everest and Kangchenjunga, first and third highest peaks in the world, wending its way to Nepal and then India. The deep-sided gorge in turn provides a route into Tibet through which birds travel as the cold of winter retreated. Each day new species would arrive at base camp. 

It was not only travellers who were revelling in the new warmth. Local residents were emerging from hibernation. Himalayan voles – small mouse-like rodents – were skittering across the boulders, and a family of Himalayan marmots emerged, introducing their young to the big wide world. Their high-pitched whistles of alarm seemed strange coming from such sturdy fluffy bodies. They crawled out of their burrows each morning, in much the same way that we crawled out of our small tents, and they soon decided that we were of little consequence and happily sunbathed on the grass nearby. 

It was an unexpected opportunity to live in an entirely unspoilt wild world, without any goals or objectives of my own and to experience the gentle rhythm of nature moving at its own unhurried pace. I’m too impatient in my western ways to elect to do it again but it was a fascinating to be briefly part of the process. 

The yak men finally arrived on 26 May, to a rapturous welcome, and two days later we moved out from base camp. All expedition equipment was burnt, buried or taken out, as well as a considerable amount of the garbage left by the Indian expedition of the previous year. Four days walking brought us to Kharta, and the next day we were driving across Tibet. 

The wider world rushed in to meet us. We quickly heard that George W. Bush had declared ‘mission accomplished’ in Iraq and that the war would soon be finished and terrorism defeated. We were therefore puzzled by the frequent police check-points manned by nervous young men wearing face masks until we found out that the fear of the SARS virus had gone viral round the world. I felt a pang of nostalgia for the baby marmots frolicking undisturbed in their remote alpine meadow, far away from the madness of mankind.

A teenage boy from Kharta hitched a ride with us to Zangmu, a frontier town in true wild-west style. He’d never left his village before and had never met women dressed in anything other than the normal Tibetan ankle-length sturdy wrap dress. It was comical to see his jaw drop as he encountered Chinese girls in stiletto heels and short skirts picking their way fastidiously through the filthy streets. The simplicity of the east face of Everest was left far behind us and it was time to re-join the modern world. 


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